March 13, 2012
Strategies for modeling critical thinking in your discipline
Although disciplines may vary in how specific aspects of critical thinking are defined and emphasized, they share some common assumptions. Specifically, Brookfield (2011) argues that students in all disciplines must “recognize, and question, the assumptions that determine how knowledge in that discipline is recognized as legitimate” (p. 28). That is, disciplines have specific processes by which scholars in the discipline determine whether disciplinary content is true.
Brookfield proposes that faculty who effectively model critical thinking skills in their discipline make their process of critical thinking public by making the strategies they use explicit. Privately questioning your assumptions and considering multiple perspectives doesn’t help students discover how to cope with the discomfort they experience when they confront and question their assumptions or articulate the interpretations that follow from a perspective that originates from a different set of assumptions. Instead, describe how you engage in critical thinking about difficult topics in your discipline. Personal examples that describe how you mastered disciplinary material that present challenges to your students can be helpful guidelines for students. However, these stories past successes will be less useful as models than current examples based on controversies or challenging topics in the field that represent areas that cause you to struggle with new ideas.
Avoid virtuosic displays of high-level and seamless critical thinking that display your expertise without revealing your underlying thinking strategies. If you must use an example that you have thought about frequently and already worked through many of the thorny problems, warn students that you have worked on this problem before and already resolved many of its difficulties and that they should expect the process to be slower and more difficult. Novel problems will slow down your strategies and make them more visible to you (so you can better describe your strategies) and to your students. Alternatively, spend some time discussing the difficulties and missteps you encountered when you first began thinking about this problem and describe the strategies that helped you correct errors and overcome obstacles.
Give students opportunities to practice new critical thinking skills. Model your critical thinking strategies on one content topic or problem that is analogous to but not identical to the content topics or problems that you assign to students for a critical thinking assignment. Give feedback on how well students used these strategies when completing their assignment.
Example: Modeling how you evaluate the quality of web sources
Select one topic related to the course content and locate web pages that discuss this topic (one that is a high-quality source and one that is unreliable). Do a “think aloud” demonstration of the questions you ask and the evidence you look for when you open a web page and evaluate the accuracy and validity of content provided. Describe the things you look for (and find) on the high-quality web page. Describe the things you look for (and don’t find) and other warning flags that you look for that indicated that the unreliable web page is problematic. Give students an opportunity to practice these skills in a critical thinking assignment in which they evaluate other web sites that present content on a different set of course topics. Evaluate their submissions in terms of the evidence they provide that illustrates their use of these critical thinking strategies when reviewing their web sites.
Brookfield, S. D. (2011). Teaching for critical thinking. San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.
February 21, 2012
Promote critical thinking skills with a pro-con-caveat homework assignment
Encourage critical thinking skills by creating assignments that require students to consider multiple points of view and describe the evidence that supports each perspective. In a pro-con-caveat assignment, students must identify arguments in favor of a certain decision, against the decision, and identify caveats or other considerations that might impact the decision. This assignment can motivate students to complete assigned readings in preparation for a class discussion. Provide guidelines on the number of entries expected for each category (pro, con, caveat) and the quality of writing expected for entries (e.g., should students write complete sentences or will a list of bulleted items be an acceptable response format?).
Use work on the pro-con-caveat assignment to support small group discussion during class. To encourage advance preparation, require students to post one copy of their assignment in eLearning before the class meeting or turn in a copy of their assignment at the start of class. In either case, students should bring an additional copy of their completed assignment to use while engaged in small group discussion during class.
Small group discussion activity based on the pro-con-caveat assignment. Students work in small groups (3 to 5 students) to create an in-depth pro-con-caveat grid that identifies the best ideas from each student. Call on one or two groups to share their collective pro-con-caveat grids with the class.
This assignment encourages students to prepare for class, reflect on issues discussed in assigned readings and apply these to a realistic problem or decision. The small group activity provides additional practice with critical thinking skills when students evaluate individual suggestions for pro and con arguments and caveats, evaluate the supporting evidence for these suggestions, and make decisions about which arguments and caveats should be included in the final grid.
Grading individual grids can be as simple as assigning pass-fail credit or assigning one point for assignments that include an entry for a grid element (3 points maximum).
This tip is based on teaching strategy suggested by Barbara Millis, Teaching and Learning Center, University of Texas at San Antonio. (www.utsa.edu/tlc)
October 25, 2011
Develop skills in scholarly disciplinary research
Many disciplines expect that students will develop the ability to conduct research using the scholarly disciplinary literature. These research skills require information literacy skills in which the student can locate and evaluate sources of information.
This tip describes a collaborative project developed for a survey-level American history course by a historian and a reference librarian. This assignment could be adapted to courses in any discipline that uses visual materials (art work, artifacts, and photographs) as part of scholarly work.
Learning Outcomes for the Assignment
Assign a different image or artifact to each student. The student’s task is to write a 4-5 page essay that explains the image or artifact using information from scholarly sources and places the image or artifact in historical context.
Students need approximately two to three weeks to complete the research and writing components of this assignment, including time to request and receive materials available only through inter-library loan. Encourage students to meet with reference librarians out of class if they have additional questions about researching their image.
Essays must include the following elements
Library instruction associated with the assignment
The students will need two consecutive class sessions with a reference librarian in the library classroom. The first session is a library workshop demonstrating how to conduct searches in the appropriate library databases. The second session should be devoted to a discussion of the ethical use of information and the importance of citing sources. A brief demonstration of citation management software (e.g., RefWorks) can be provided or students can be referred to the library tutorial (http://library.uwf.edu/tutorials/writing_skills/refworks/). In addition, students should use some time during this session to begin their search for information about their assigned image. Both the instructor and the librarian should be available to answer specific questions about using the databases and evaluating the usefulness of information related to the images.
This tip is based on teaching strategy suggested by Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD (Department of History/Social Sciences and Center for Innovative Teaching, Learning & Assessment) and Susan G. Miller (Librarian), Community College of Rhode Island (http://www.ccri.edu/citla).
September 27, 2011
Decoding the disciplines: Identifying metaphors to communicate and teach disciplinary strategies for thinking
Metaphors are powerful teaching strategies because they can connect an unfamiliar concept with existing knowledge in a way that students will understand and remember. A good metaphor can help students master difficult concepts that create bottlenecks and obstacles to their learning.
The best metaphors are based on vivid and concrete phenomena that are already familiar to the student. How do you create an effective metaphor? Once you have identified a bottleneck to learning, ask yourself what is the desired thinking like? For example, a fine arts instructor might want to model the thinking process used when an artist creates a self-portrait. What is this process like? Is the artist trying to picture the pattern of light and dark colors, like a kaleidoscope? Is the artist creating a message about herself, like describing what items to bring along on a canoe trip to make it a memorable experience? A good metaphor will help students understand the kind of thinking they should use.
Metaphors can also help students overcome the persistent misconceptions that can be problematic in science teaching. For example, a misconception from meteorology is that weather on earth is caused by the seasons, when weather is actually caused by the transfer of heat and cold between the equator and the poles. A metaphor that compares weather to a pot of boiling water in which weather is like the movement of the water in the pot that moves heat from the bottom of the pot (the equator) to the top (the poles) will help students understand how the earth, which gets super heated at the equator, transmits that heat to the cold poles through the process we know as weather.
Because students learn more from a metaphor that is based on familiar processes or phenomena, select metaphors based on things that students are already likely to know and understand. The videos described below provide examples of two professors describing metaphors that will help their students make the conceptual leaps needed to master disciplinary knowledge and thought.
Braasch, J. & Goldman, S. (2010). The Role of Prior Knowledge in Learning from Analogies in Science Texts. Discourse Processes: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 47, 447-479.
Pace, D. & Middendorf, J. (Eds.). (2004). Decoding the disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Savion, L. & Middendorf, J. (1994). Enhancing Concept Comprehension and Retention. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 3, 6-8.
April 6, 2010
Help students organize their learning by identifying the “big questions” for your course
Gerald Nosich (2009) points out that any large body of knowledge has a core belief, “a fundamental and powerful concept . . . that can be used to explain or think out a huge body of questions, problems, information, and situations.” Fundamental concepts are useful for instruction because they help students understand and organize the course content. Blythe and Sweet note that they begin their courses in World Literature each semester with a discussion of one fundamental idea that illuminates the overall content of the course: Art reflects its culture. In each subsequent class, they discuss how the work studied that day reveals something about the culture that produced it.
Identifying a few fundamental concepts for your course serves two purposes. First, it demonstrates your own mastery of the subject. Second, it creates a touchstone for your students to organize their understanding of new content throughout the semester. These fundamental concepts will also transfer to other courses within the discipline. When students complete a course in World Literature and then take a course in English or American Literature, they will begin these courses with the advantage of knowing that the works they will study will reveal aspects of English or American culture.
Tip contributed by Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, KY.
Nosich, G. (2009). Learning to think things through: A guide to critical thinking across the curriculum (3rd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
February 9, 2010
Add a discipline-relevant multicultural component to your course
Students may lack a sense of the larger world, a serious problem in an age of globalization. The following assignment brings students into contact with other cultures while keeping the focus on the content of the course discipline.
Ask students to write about a topic relevant to the class that includes resources from English-language media from around the world. Faculty may consult with their subject specialist librarian for assistance in directing their students to international media resources.
Require students to represent countries from 3 continents in their paper. The articles selected
Students should summarize each article, describe whether the article is published by a government agency or an independent press, and describe the questions the article addresses. Ask students to describe the point of view or assumptions made in the article and summarize the facts presented and the conclusions drawn. Students should describe whether the article is consistent with what they’ve read about their topic in resources published in the United States. Finally, students should describe how the articles were similar and different to one another and reflect on whether reading several international viewpoints altered their opinion, surprised them, or led them to any new conclusions.
Assess the work on clarity, accuracy, logic, relevance, depth and breadth, and the absence of plagiarism.
Students will benefit from this activity by broadening their horizons and experiencing the perspectives of the global community. They might even develop a curiosity about international perspectives and news sources.
Based on a tip provided by:
Department of Psychology/Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching
Western Kentucky University
Thanks to Britt McGowan, Shari Johnson, and Melissa Finley Gonzalez for additional information about using resources in the UWF library.
March 3, 2009
Coach students in the cognitive skills associated with the discipline
Experts differ from less accomplished performers in terms of the amount of disciplinary content they know, the nature and fluency of specific disciplinary cognitive skills, and, for disciplines such as music, sport, and dance, physiological adaptations that emerge following extended periods of practice and training (Ericsson & Charness, 2004). Discipline-specific cognitive skills used by experts may be so deeply embedded in expertise that experts may not be fully aware of the speed and fluidity with which they deploy these skills. Expert skills include cognitive strategies such as approaches for analyzing a problem and strategies for reading the technical literature. Experts may have difficulty articulating how they acquired these skills or describing their decision processes when using these skills. Ericsson and Charness (2004) argue that novices require extensive practice and expert coaching to achieve expert levels of performance on these skills.
January 22, 2008
Model problem solving in the classroom. When a student asks a difficult question, think out loud in response to the question and engage your students in the process of developing an answer. It is OK to not know the answer – especially if you are willing to find the answer for a later class. Students appreciate instructors who acknowledge the limits of their expertise and model a willingness to learn new information. Sometimes students pose questions that have not yet been addressed in the discipline. This is an opportunity to model how an expert in the discipline thinks through a new question and determines what is and is not known, what additional information is needed, and how that information might be obtained.
Updated 03/13/12 mhh
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